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Previewing the Second Set of Republican Debates

Flickr / Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debates are expected to focus more on foreign policy issues than the first pair of debates did. As Gerald Seib correctly notes, one of the moderators will be the talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, who recently embarrassed Trump in a recent interview and who has made a point of questioning all the candidates at some length on foreign policy and national security. Hewitt previously complained that the first main debate “was a 9/10 debate in a 9/11 world,” which isn’t a very accurate description but tells us a lot about the warped view that Hewitt has of all these issues.

The two candidates currently leading in national and early state polls, Trump and Carson, have been the two that have struggled the most in their interviews with Hewitt on this subject, and we should assume that Hewitt is going to keep pressing them to demonstrate that they have some basic knowledge on major issues. Unless something has changed in recent weeks, Trump and Carson’s answers won’t withstand much scrutiny, but at this point there’s no reason to think this will drive away many of their supporters. Following their joint display of demagoguery on the Iran deal, Trump and Cruz will probably keep trying to help one another by going after the other’s critics.

Rubio was able to get through the entire first debate without fielding a single question on foreign policy, and I suspect Hewitt is going to remedy that. It is taken for granted in Republican circles that Rubio is well-versed on these issues, but the more often he presents his hard-line views to the public the more likely it is that he is going to prove himself to be nothing more than the neoconservatives’ factional candidate. Walker is desperate to distinguish himself in this debate after he failed to do so last time, so I assume we’re going to hear a lot of bluster from him on the nuclear deal and the war on ISIS as he tries to arrest his precipitous decline in the polls. It is unfortunate for Walker that his best chance of reviving his campaign will be a debate likely focused on the foreign policy issues that have tripped him time after time. Each time Jeb Bush tries to turn a foreign policy issue to his advantage, it blows up in his face, so any question Hewitt has for him on these issues threatens to weaken further his already anemic candidacy.

For anyone interested in peace and restraint, Hewitt is hardly an ideal moderator, and he’s already shown a willingness to indulge candidates when they make false claims or offer up pathetic evasions that appeal to Hewitt’s hawkish instincts. That makes it unlikely that the candidates are going to be forced to defend bogus claims about the nuclear deal, which Hewitt is happy to echo. None of the candidates is likely to be challenged to justify higher military spending. Hewitt stated earlier this year that any member of Congress that votes against increased military spending should be targeted for a primary challenge:

Reckless endangerment of American national security via showboating votes against Pentagon funding should earn a GOP representative a quick ticket to enforced retirement.

Note the demagogic misrepresentation of combating wasteful spending as “reckless endangerment.” Hewitt’s hostility to reduced military spending could put him at odds with the so-called “cheap hawk” John Kasich, and that might provide Kasich an opportunity to distinguish himself a little from a field that he has mostly tried to imitate on foreign policy issues across the board. Kasich has lately been at pains to emphasize just how much he despises the nuclear deal and how he will look for any excuse to withdraw from it if he were elected. In a recent interview with Seib, Kasich seemed proud to draw attention to the fact that he doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of diplomacy with hostile and rival states when he asked, “How can we make an agreement with somebody who is funding people that really want to see us or our allies destroyed?” The better question for Kasich should be: why wouldn’t you want to make an agreement with a hostile regime that limits its ability to acquire nuclear weapons?

In theory, Rand Paul might have once benefited from having a more adversarial, hawkish moderator such as Hewitt, but it seems unlikely to help him now. Hewitt will probably be harder on Paul than on the other candidates on issues of surveillance, military spending, and military intervention, but I’d be surprised if there are any memorable exchanges between them. Christie and Huckabee will round out the field of hawks with their trademark bullying and fanatical rhetoric respectively.

The main debate on Wednesday will be the first time Fiorina joins the top of the 2016 field on the stage, and it is unlikely that she’ll be able to outperform the rest of the competition as easily as she did in the second-tier debate earlier in the year. She will probably be questioned about a recent report on H-P’s dealings with Iran through a subsidiary in the 2000s, which other Iran hawks on the stage will presumably try to use against her. She should be able to dismiss these attacks, but she has boxed herself in as such a vocal Iran hawk that it may be awkward for her to explain. The remaining handful of candidates in the earlier debate will squabble among themselves to the edification of no one. Jindal will be present, though no one will have any idea why he keeps campaigning. Gilmore will be spared the indignity of participating on account of his non-existent support anywhere, while Pataki will be stuck in between two of the party’s most tireless warmongers in Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham.

All in all, the debates tomorrow are likely to be very dispiriting for anyone that hopes to hear something other than boilerplate hawkish rhetoric, and they are very likely to confirm what we already know about the candidates.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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